Days after Prime Minister Hun Sen called on military, police and forestry officials to crack down on illegal forest clearing, forestry watchdog Global Witness alleged Thursday that a large, military-run logging operation was under way inside a forestry concession in Kompong Thom province.
Global Witness observed and photographed cutting sites of high-quality timber over 16 square km in a Santuk district logging concession, controlled by Pheapimex-Fu Chan Cambodia Co Ltd, according to by statement from the NGO.
The logs were being processed at three illegal sawmills inside the concession, which was granted to Pheapimex-Fuchan in the 1990s and operated until Prime Min-ister Hun Sen banned all cutting and transportation of logs at the end of 2001.
“This is the third time in 14 months that Global Witness has uncovered large-scale illegal logging and sawmill operations in the Pheapimex-Fu Chan Komp-ong Thom concession,” Global Witness said in the statement.
After an investigation, which included interviews with local witnesses, surveillance and site visits, Global Witness accused an RCAF commander and deputy commander of a battalion in Kompong Cham province’s Military Region 2 of running the logging and paying a cut of the profits to the local Pheapimex-Fu Chan logging subcontractor.
“The scale and recurrence of these activities, as well as the involvement of a company subcontractor, strongly suggest that Pheapimex-Fu Chan is complicit, if not directly responsible,” Global Witness stated in the report.
Kompong Cham and Komp-ong Thom provincial governors said Thursday they did not know anything about the logging. Hou Peuv, RCAF deputy commander of Kompong Cham, also denied the reports and said the accused soldiers weren’t involved.
“There is no logging anymore,” he said. “We are very strict about that.”
Listed numbers for Pheapimex-Fu Chan did not work Thursday, and a reporter was not allowed to enter the Pheapimex office in Phnom Penh after requesting to meet with company officials.
Than Sarath, deputy director of the press office for the Forestry Administration, said Thursday he did not have contact information for the company. He directed calls to Chheng Kim Sun, head of the forest management office, who could not be reached by phone.
Than Sarath said he would pass Global Witness’ report to higher-ranking forestry officials today, and they would order an investigation into the allegations.
Mike Davis of Global Witness said that Cheung Sopheap, the owner of Pheapimex-Fu Chan, was seen on television accompanying Prime Minister Hun Sen on his recent trip to China. He said Cheung Sopheap was also seen on television with Bun Rany, working for the Cambodian Red Cross.
Than Sarath said Cheung Sopheap was a business woman, not a close friend of Hun Sen.
“Not all people seen in the company of the prime minister are [his] good friends,” he said.
Global Witness’ latest allegations of illegal logging operations, comes amid vehement criticism of the first report by the Forestry Administration’s new logging monitor, Societe Generale de Surveillance, which stated that most forest crime was committed by the poor in order to survive.
David Mead, former Country Head of Conservation Internat-ional, which has several forestry enforcement programs in the Cardamom Mountains, called the SGS report misleading because it “gives the impression that we don’t have a major problem going on in illegal forest activity.”
“Knowing the southwest as I do, I would greatly dispute that,” he said.
Mike Bird, country program manager of Oxfam Great Britain, called SGS’ efforts “ineffective” because it monitors the crimes reported by the Forest Administration and how the administration enters those reports into a database.
“There is an awful lot that does not get reported in the system,” Bird said.
SGS project head, Bruce Telfer, however, said the project was still in its early stages in an e-mail Wednesday.
“We are certainly watching how the [Forestry Administrat-ion] responds to all reported forest crime—including reports of larger scale operations possibly organized by influential people,” he said.